NOBODY WALKS ON THE STREETS OF DOHA, Qatar. Running down the broad avenues are a feast of cars, including one salmon-coloured Rolls, which I saw a few times (there might have been more than one such Phantom on the road, but my ordinary brain could not fathom that possibility). The only people on the street are construction workers, heads covered with cloth as they beat metal into roads and buildings under the hot sun. Walking takes place in the malls, such as Center City, where a visitor such as myself might encounter ordinary Qatari families. The men in white, the women in black, the children in designer clothes —a slow leisurely walk past shops of leading brand names. As I lean over and watch ice-skating in the well of the mall, a Qatari man smiles at me. I ask him why no one walks on the street. His smile becomes sardonic, “If you can drive, why walk?”
Qataris can drive. The per capita income in Qatar is $113,000, but if you add all the goodies for the quarter of a million Qataris, the per capita bill is about $400,000. That is small change if you consider that Qatar’s natural gas holdings have become more prized as the industrial world seeks to shift to “alternative fuels”, with natural gas seen as cleaner than oil. The natural gas revenues add up to $30 billion a year, with Qatar’s growth rate steady at around 20 per cent a year. Unlike Dubai, Doha’s Desert Modernism is premised less on real estate speculation and more on gas pipelines. Between the Museum of Islamic Art (designed by I.M. Pei) and the Four Seasons Hotel, the old Corniche holds at bay the glass-and-steel buildings. But not far away, the space-age quality Navigation Towers, headquarters of QatarGas, dominates the skyline of Omar Al Mukhtar Street (renamed in 2011 to honour the Libyan hero of the anti-colonial era, as part of Qatar’s role in the Libyan uprising). This is a civilisation built on gas.
The gas revenues allowed the Emir to buy six Greek islands in early March, paying €8.5 million for them. The sellers advertised these as properties that could be developed into a Club Med or some other high-end resort. But the Emir, his three wives and 24 children (with their own families and retainers) want to use these islands and their ancient olive groves as their own playground. The Gulf’s claustrophobic social codes encourage the royals to seek their pleasures elsewhere (in Monaco or in London). No one can blame them for wanting somewhere to blow off steam. One wishes that this opportunity were afforded to all those who live in the emirate, not just the quarter of a million Qataris but also those who work for them.
Gas wealth has made the Qataris rely on various forms of contract labour to facilitate their luxurious existence. To protect them, the Qataris have at least 10,000 United States troops at the al-Udeid airbase, the largest U.S. facility in the region. Unless you get into a car and drive for an hour into the desert, you would not see any of these troops. They are on permanent battle alert—which means no loafing around in the malls and no public debauchery. These troops provide Qatar with a more permanent shield than the Jazeera Force of the Gulf Coordination Council or Qatar’s own burgeoning military (whose air force and special forces participated in Libya). Iran is only 480 kilometres away.
As part of my adventure in Doha, I rented one of those ubiquitous blue taxis and asked the driver to go along Salwa Road, towards the base. We did not get too far. He decided to take me to the Omani Souk near the wholesale market. My driver was from Bangladesh (others were from Egypt, India—mainly Kerala— and the Philippines). As we drove out of Doha’s more familiar streets, he told me what had already become a familiar tale—he signed one contract in Dhaka, which promised him a certain salary, but found on his arrival in Doha that this had been rendered invalid; he had to sign another contract, for half the salary, and he had to surrender his travel documents to the boss (the first wife of the Emir). I asked him about other workers, in construction and domestic service. He confirmed what I had already heard from an Egyptian driver (from Alexandria), an Indian driver (from Kannur), and an Indian construction worker—that the conditions of transnational indenture were the same. “I can’t wait to finish my contract,” he said. What he earns he saves: a modest amount goes to his livelihood and some, via extortionist remittance channels, for his family’s immediate needs. But the rest goes into a corpus about which he seems to be deeply worried. “What business should I go into,” he asks me? “Should I open a shop, or a taxi service?”
MIGRANT WORKERS AND THEIR SPONSOR
A series of Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports, spurred on by Doha’s intention to host football’s 2022 World Cup, provides adequate support to the drivers’ complaints. Over a million indentured workers are trapped by the kafala (sponsorship) system, which, according to HRW’s 2013 World Report, “ties a migrant worker’s legal residence to his or her employer, or ‘sponsor’. Migrant workers cannot change jobs without their sponsoring employer’s consent except in exceptional cases and with Interior Ministry permission. If a worker leaves his or her employer, even if fleeing abuse, the employer can report the worker as ‘absconding’, leading to detention and deportation. In order to leave Qatar, migrants must obtain an exit visa from their sponsor, and some workers said sponsors denied them these visas. Reporting mechanisms and remedies are effectively unavailable to migrant workers. In addition, the labour law excludes domestic workers, almost all female, denying them basic protections such as limits to hours of work and weekly days off.” We drove past the partly constructed Barwa al Baraha workers’ city, which from a distance looked impressive. My driver did not anticipate moving in there anytime soon. How the state will define “worker” in terms of getting residence in this new city is far from clear.
Like so much in Qatar, the reality of workers’ oppression sits on the surface, and that itself is part of Qatar’s remarkable branding policy. The astute Sheikha Mozah, second wife of the Emir and chief architect of Brand Qatar, established the Qatar Foundation on Combating Human Trafficking, and, in 2002, the Emir inaugurated the National Human Rights Commission. By a stroke of his Aurora Diamante, the Emir could render illegal the kafala system, but that would be too much work. Far better to let the material conditions of Qatari luxury remain intact and create some mild non-governmental organisations to offer rebukes for this or that excessive incident and bring in the hotels to hold soirees on behalf of the migrants, who are the waiters and janitors, for those events.
CONTROL OF AL JAZEERA
Part of Brand Qatar, of course, is Al Jazeera. Walking through its Arabic channel office, I got to see the old studios featured in Jehane Noujaim’s 2004 documentary, Control Room, based on the channel. Around the corner is a shrine to the channel’s reporters who fell foul of the West in its “War on Terror”: there is the flak jacket of Tareq Ayyoub (killed by the U.S. in Iraq) and the letters from Sami al-Hajj (held in Guantanamo for seven years). Ayyoub’s story is in Control Room, and al-Hajj’s story in Prisoner 345, both informative documentaries about the war on journalism. Reports of Qatar’s control of Al Jazeera come not only from the channel’s detractors. Some of its own reporters say that certain stories cannot be covered (of course, this is a problem for all reporters, not the least American ones whose tenure is cut short if they tell the truth about U.S. power, with the signature story being Eason Jordan’s 2005 “resignation” from CNN International after he spoke at Davos about the U.S. targeting journalists in Iraq). Stories critical of the Libyan or Syrian rebels simply do not make it, and there can be no report on the condition of migrant workers in Qatar. In September 2011, Al Jazeera’s well-regarded director, Wadah Khanfar, resigned after building up the channel’s considerable reputation. Khanfar had steered the channel fully in support of the Libyan leadership of his mentor Mahmoud Jibril (Jibril was not only Sheikha Mozah’s financial adviser, but his firm, JTrack, was also a consultant that refurbished Al Jazeera in 2004-05). The palace now wanted to take full control of the channel, and so Khanfar was replaced by Sheikh Ahmed bin Jasem bin Mohammed Al Thani, who was once head of QatarGas and has no journalism experience.
Around the corner from the Al Jazeera campus is the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies. Here, I spent a fruitful few hours talking to its resident fellows about their mission. They argue that the “international” media are coloured by the views from Washington, London and Paris, filtered through “think tanks” (Carnegie in Beirut and Brookings in Doha), and adopted wholesale by the media in the Arab world and elsewhere. What they want to do is to provide a new intellectual foundation for the articulation of news on international affairs.
Last year, the centre hosted a major conference on the Kurdish question. Kurdish leaders and government officials from Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria attended the meeting in Doha. The entire proceedings were carried live on Al Jazeera Mubasher (Live). It was the first such region-wide discussion, with the Kurdish leadership meeting each other across national lines.
While I am in Doha, Qatar’s Prime Minister (since 2007) and Foreign Minister (since 1992) Hamad bin Jasem bin Jaber Al Thani announces that he is frustrated with the West’s reticence to bring the Libyan model to Syria. He wants to arm the rebels. Qatar ejected Syria’s diplomatic staff and provided the rebels with full diplomatic relations. It tells you something about the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria that it has been able to hold intact the entire elite—no major diplomatic or military defections, with only a few well-known figures such as Manaf Tlass jumping ship. I make my way to the neighbourhood of al-Qutaifiya and find the new Syrian Embassy (not far from the new Libyan Embassy). A Syrian flag flies above the house, but there is no security detail manning the gate. I walk right in and ask to see Nizar al-Haraki, the new ambassador for the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, or his spokesperson. The man at the desk, Mohammed, hands me a photocopied slip of paper with a phone number and an e-mail address (Mehdi@syrian-c-q.org) and asks me to call Omar Adlabi, a poet, who others tell me made his mark as a reasonable man while in Beirut.
The Syrian rebels do not care about the contradictions in taking assistance in the name of democracy from an authoritarian regime (whose Emir in December imprisoned a poet, Mohammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, under Article 134 of the Qatari code which prohibits criticism of the monarch). They want their revolution, and they will take it anyway they can. Of course, Qatar has its own agenda at play. It has been financing the Muslim Brotherhood across northern Africa and in the Syrian theatre. The Brotherhood is its preferred vehicle, and the Brothers’ own requirement for democracy is that they be allowed to play a political role in their states: there is no stipulation to honour the rights of poets, something Adlabi must worry about when he goes to bed at night.
I ask the Syrian rebels what they make of the stalemate, about the recklessness with human life on display in the country. They point their fingers at Assad’s army, but concede that the rebels also have blood on their hands. Everyone talks about a “political solution” but no one seems to have the stomach for it. Qatar had tried to be the “honest broker” for a series of regional conflicts (Yemen, Darfur, Palestine), but since the Libyan war it has begun to see itself as a party to a new regional order. It was one thing to rattle the sabre over Libya, when the West and the Saudis were united in their disregard for Muammar Qaddafi; it is quite another problem in Syria, where the Israelis and the West are uncomfortable with the rebels and cannot countenance the lack of a dictator in Damascus.
Later in March, Doha will host the Arab League summit. Its General Secretary, the Egyptian diplomat Nabil el-Araby, said the League had tried many initiatives in Syria, but the “regime rejected all of them”. “We don’t have new ideas,” he says plaintively, but “we never talk about a military operation in Syria”. The League comes to Doha to create the means for the Syrian government and the national alliance to sit down and discuss their core disagreements. No one is hopeful: not the Syrian rebel office in Doha, neither the Qataris.
Doha has become a post office for rebels, a little like London in the 19th century. Karl Marx and his band of European “ruffians” took up residence in the imperial capital, where they were generally left alone as long as they did not cross the Crown and British foreign policy. Hamas’ Khaled Meshal left his garrisoned bunker in Damascus for a leafy villa in Doha’s suburbs, and the Taliban is in town but unable to announce its presence (during a visit to an Afghan shop I learned that the Taliban wishes to have its signboard say “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan”, which the Qataris, through U.S. pressure, cannot allow). Hamas has finessed its dance between Syria (whose regime it criticises) and Iran (whose regime is a major support base), something that neither the Hezbollah nor the Qataris have been able to do. Qatar cannot afford to be too aggressive towards Iran. Not only is it nearby, but the two countries share one of the largest natural gas fields. A Qatari diplomat I spoke to said that not all his peers were content with Qatar’s rash line on Syria. It hurts the Syrian people, and it hurts Qatar’s future ties with Iran.
Paul McGeough (author of Kill Khalid) says that Meshal exercises each day in the Hamas villa’s gym, dressed in a blue Adidas tracksuit with matching shoes. Talking about the failure of any breakthrough with the Israelis, Meshal holds a steady pace (6 km/hr) on the treadmill.
“I’m familiar with walking because I’m a farmer from Silwad,” he tells McGeough, mentioning the West Bank village from where his family was uprooted in 1967. Like most Qataris, the Palestinian leader walks indoors. The outside is for those migrant workers, the class of people whose lives are easily lost either from construction accidents or from reckless wars.